Mark Pottenger


I recently finished listening to another Great Course that inspired me to follow up with a musing: Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. The emphasis of the course is on increasing our cultural intelligence and using it to improve our ability to adjust to cultures we visit or recognize how different cultural values might help explain behaviors of people visiting us.

In Ideas for and from LA-CCRS Discussions, I mentioned how we each have a unique set of values in dimensions/scales describing personal attributes.

In Why rational arguments rarely change minds, I mentioned several models of human nature, each of which can serve as a framework for thinking about ourselves and others.

This course introduced me to ten cultural dimensions or values that also describe individuals. Most of these dimensions were not already familiar to me as attributes in any of the many psychological models I have encountered over the years. The course also defines ten cultural clusters that have their own mixes of the ten dimensions/values.

The ten dimensions/values (drastically shortened from ten lectures) are:

Identity—Individualist versus Collectivist

How much of personal identity is defined by individual (personal) characteristics and how much by collective (group) characteristics. The United States and China exemplify opposite ends of this dimension, emphasizing rights of individuals vs. what is best for a collective whole.

Authority—Low versus High Power Distance

Power distance describes inequality in authority, power, status, and influence. Power distance strongly shapes interactions between people. Hierarchies exemplify power distance. Sweden and India are examples of low and high power distance.

Risk—Low versus High Uncertainty Avoidance

This looks at tolerance for risk, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Britain and Sweden have low uncertainty avoidance and Germany and Japan have high uncertainty avoidance (structure and routine, likely to have contingency plans).

Achievement—Cooperative versus Competitive

To achieve results, cooperative cultures emphasize nurturing, supportive relationships, while competitive cultures emphasize personal competition. Thailand, Sweden, and Denmark are on the cooperative end, and Japan and the United States are on the competitive end.

Time—Punctuality versus Relationships

Time actually includes multiple dimensions. Clock time (punctuality) cultures set specific times and expect people to meet them and event time (presence) cultures treat scheduled times as approximate guidelines, with events actually starting when everyone needed for the event is available. This time orientation interacts with the achievement and identity dimensions. The U. S. and other Western individualist cultures are more on the punctuality end and Brazil, India and many other cultures around the world are more on the presence end. Another time dimension is monochronic (doing one thing at a time and task focused) vs. polychronic (doing many things at once and easily distracted and giving relationships more priority than tasks). The U. S. is more monochronic and France is more polychronic. A third time dimension is short-term (present) vs. long-term (future) orientation—how long are we willing to work toward a result. Anglo cultures are mostly short-term and Confucian cultures are mostly long-term.

Communication—Direct versus Indirect

Low context communication is explicit and direct, and high context communication is more indirect, depending more on environment, clothing, body language, expressions, tones of voice, and more. The Netherlands is low context. Religious communities and families are high context.

Lifestyle—Being versus Doing

Do you work to live (valuing relationships and quality of life) or live to work (valuing results and material rewards)? Scandinavian cultures are toward the being end of this scale and the U. S. and Japan are toward the doing end.

Rules—Particularist versus Universalist

Particularists focus on individuals and relationships while universalists focus on rules that apply to everyone. The UK and U. S. are universalist and many Asian and Latin American cultures are particularist. Many particularist cultures expect money to grease wheels as a normal part of business.

Expressiveness—Neutral versus Affective

Neutral cultures strive to control the expressing of emotions and affective cultures openly express emotions. Neutral cultures include the UK, Germany, and much of Confucian Asia. Affective cultures include Italy, France, Spain, and much of Latin America. “Face” (as in saving face) is tied to neutral cultures.

Social Norms—Tight versus Loose

This relates to how strong social norms are and how strongly they are enforced. Tight cultures are the strong enforcement end of the axis. Japan is tight and Thailand is loose. Free speech is highly valued in loose cultures. Another term for degrees of tolerance for differences is “category width”.

The ten cultural clusters around the world (drastically shortened from ten lectures) are:

Anglo Cultures: English as first language and historical ties to the British Empire. Individualistic, competitive, short-term, and doing.

Nordic European Cultures: Includes Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Don’t see yourself as special or better than others. Individualistic, low power-distance, cooperative, low context, being, and loose.

Germanic Cultures: Includes Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Low power-distance, high uncertainty avoidance, competitive, clock time, low context, doing, universalist, and tight.

Eastern European/Central Asian Cultures: Includes Albania, Greece, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, some Hungarian groups, and the Eurasian Steppe. Collectivist, high power-distance, competitive, and particularist.

Latin European Cultures: Includes Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Israel (even though it isn’t in Europe). Paternalistic, collectivist, eating as an event.

Latin American Cultures: Central and South America. Collectivist, high uncertainty avoidance, paternalistic, family-oriented, high context, and particularist.

Confucian Asian Cultures: Includes China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Singapore. Collectivist, long-term, high context, and neutral expressiveness. China is more being and particularist, Japan is more doing and universalist.

South Asian Cultures: Includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Collectivist, high power-distance, low uncertainty avoidance, and loose.

Sub-Saharan African Cultures: Many different cultures with various values. Most are collectivist and cooperative.

Arab Cultures: North Africa to Persian Gulf, dominant language Arabic. Family and religion are central. Polychronic, short-term, and high being.

Some thoughts after listening to this course.

Every culture can be described as falling somewhere on each of these dimensional axes. The course mostly covers national cultures, but the term culture can refer to all users of a language, a racial or ethnic group, a religion, a nation, a region, a state, a city, a company, an NGO, a university, a profession, people with a shared history, players or watchers of a sport or game, a branch of the military, a political party, a clan or extended family, a nuclear family, or any other group of people who can be described as having some feature in common. All people are members of multiple cultures.

Every person can also be described as falling somewhere on each of these dimensional axes. We tend to absorb or internalize the cultures we grow up in, but our own intrinsic natures and our membership in multiple cultures both lead to personal natures that can vary from our surrounding cultures.

Just as languages adopt and adapt words from other languages, cultures adopt and adapt things from other cultures. Both languages and cultures even get things from fiction. There are a number of words / phrases / concepts that came from the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the Star Trek science fiction shows and books and movies (phaser, transporter, tricorder, etc.), the Star Wars science fiction movies and books (the Force, Jedi, etc.), the Harry Potter fantasy books and movies (muggles, sorting hat, etc.), fantasy role-playing games (level up, etc.), etc. Adopted words / phrases / concepts carry varying degrees of their original story cultures as parts of their meanings.

I was quite struck by the Particularist versus Universalist lecture. It made me wonder how much behavior that U. S. culture labels as corrupt is perfectly acceptable for Particularists.

Comparing some of my own attitudes to majority attitudes in my national (U. S.) culture, some things are quite noticeable. I have the short-term orientation of U. S. culture in many areas, but in areas such as ecological thinking where I look more at the long-term I see much of the short-term orientation of most U. S. culture as short-sighted (and harmful).

A quick search didn’t find a site to evaluate where I fit on the ten scales, so I will simply say where I think I fit.

Individualist versus Collectivist: I recognize and have even written multiple times that every person in the world is unique, so personal uniqueness should always be included in any thinking about or planning for people, but running a society and planning for a survivable future require a lot of collectivist awareness and goals. Regulating all commons in the economic sense (like clean air, water, and land), dealing with climate change, effective healthcare, a stable democracy, good international relationships, eliminating systematic racism, and more require collectivist thinking. I guess I would say I am both an Individualist and a Collectivist.

Low versus High Power Distance: My attitudes are definitely on the low power distance end.

Low versus High Uncertainty Avoidance: My attitudes are pretty high in uncertainty avoidance, even though I like novelty.

Cooperative versus Competitive: My attitudes are definitely on the cooperative end.

The time lecture discussed three scales. I’m definitely on the clock time end of the clock time vs. event time scale. I am mostly monochronic, with good concentration, but somewhat polychronic in my day job to keep up with emails. I am a short-term thinker in some areas and long-term in others.

Direct versus Indirect Communication: My communication is very direct and low context.

Being versus Doing: I express both ends of this scale in different areas. I have cut back on the hours at my day job, but I always have plenty of both personal and work to do lists.

Particularist versus Universalist: My attitudes are definitely on the Universalist end, but building my awareness of everyone’s uniqueness into any rules that are then to be universally applied. In other words, make good rules that allow for differences before you apply them to everyone.

Neutral versus Affective: My expressiveness is more neutral then not. In my teens I admired the extremely neutral fictional model of Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze.

Tight versus Loose: My own attitudes toward norms are very loose, again tied to my recognition of people’s uniqueness.

Doing the above exercise in self-awareness might benefit anyone, especially if you compare your values to those of the culture(s) you grew up in to see how much of “your” nature is absorbed rather than inherent.

I think these dimensions/values are a good addition to the many models of human nature that we all use when thinking, talking, or writing about ourselves and other people. They add ten useful dimensions to the many dimensions of uniqueness I already knew.

Copyright © 2023 Mark Pottenger

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